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Foot Locker v. NXN
The Tussle
for Talent


Challenging Choices

In the quest to attract individual talent beyond the top-ranked teams, Foot Locker has retained most of the cream of the crop, with a very few exceptions.  But NXN is pulling in athletes beyond the ultra-elite level, with numbers of athletes still trying to double or still deciding

By SteveU, DyeStat/ESPN RISE senior editor

Original May 2008 stories: Press Release Announcing NXN Individuals - Follow Up: The Lines Are Drawn

Since the format of Nike Cross Nationals changed last spring to allow individual qualifiers, there’s been an effort all fall long by administrators of that event, and their partners, to attract top student-athletes to their meets, regardless of the quality of the teams they compete for – athletes who in the past would have likely chosen Foot Locker.

First, for the uninitiated, a brief review of how things got to this point:  NXN started as Nike Team Nationals in 2004, an attempt to truly bring the team element into national prep championship cross-country.  Initially, teams were chosen from each region by a committee, a process that was hotly debated, but also accepted by many considering the already existing Foot Locker meets and the complexity of scheduling.  There was cooperation between the two nationals to the extent that NTN runners from Foot Locker West states could qualify for Foot Locker Finals from Portland, given the direct conflict between the meets.

In 2007, however, the NTN folks decided to create a true qualifying scenario and instituted regional meets.  More fair, said some.  More complex, said others.  Five of the regions (Midwest, Heartland, Northwest, Southwest, South) were contested before Foot Locker regionals, creating doubling opportunities for those who wanted to test their stamina and traveling abilities.  The New York, Northeast and Southeast regionals were scheduled on the same day as the Foot Locker South and Northeast regionals, forcing kids in the 20 conflicting states to make a choice between the meets.  Foot Locker no longer allowed NTN competitors from Foot Locker West states to earn qualifying spots.

This past May, NTN organizers took another step, deciding to allow individuals to compete at the regionals to qualify for the finals (five from each region not on qualifying teams) and changing its name to Nike Cross Nationals (NXN).  A new layer of choices was created, again drawing cheers from some and ire from others.  The debates between supporters of NXN and Foot Locker is old hat for many of those in the sport, but it’s new and fresh for younger athletes and coaches facing it for the first time.

The meet schedule in 2008 is basically the same as last year, so all over the country, the decision process has begun and will continue in the weeks ahead.  Some athletes have already run NXN regionals, or plan to this weekend, and have the option still to try and do a double (or triple or quadruple, with four races being a maxed-out post-season).  Others have been dealing with that difficult choice between those conflicting NXN or Foot Locker races on November 29.

In a little over a week, we’ll know who’s competed in which regional meet, and in the two weeks following, we’ll get the national verdict.  But as the post-season reaches its second of five weeks, it’s beginning to be clear that while NXN is still attracting the top athletes on the best teams, and has attracted some top individuals beyond that, the significant majority – especially the cream of the crop – are still choosing Foot Locker.

While there seemed to be an initial feeling that Nike might lure quite a few Foot Locker Finalist-quality “individuals” to their meets, a reality seems to have evolved that the process might take awhile if it’s to happen.  Those who vouch for Foot Locker speak of the tradition (this is the meet’s 30th year), the familiarity, and the seeming certitude of great competition.  Getting treated like kings and queens all weekend in San Diego doesn’t hurt, either.

Of course, athletes are treated like royalty in Portland, too, and there’s no doubt the first class of individual qualifiers will know they are special pioneers.  Supporters of this meet have always spoken for the “team aspect” of cross-country and now they can compare their meet to the NCAA meet in terms of format, as well as something that’s pretty similar to every state meet in the country.

But bring out anything about “states” to Foot Locker purists, and they can point out the ease by which athletes can participate in their events.  There seem to be no conflicts with state associations in the 30-year history, while on the other hand team participants in NXN have to form “clubs” to participate (Michigan kids can’t even participate as a club).  The kids seem to enjoy forming the clubs, though, and a certain spirit has developed through that process.

So the debates continue, between message board pundits comparing the meets or saying which they think is better, to kids, coaches and families weighing options to try and maximize their kids’ experience.

One thing you won’t hear much regarding the tussle for talent is much from the representatives of the meets themselves.  Multiple requests for comments went basically unanswered from Foot Locker.  One Nike official expressed a willingness to talk, but did not respond to later emails over 36 hours.  Some of those involved with the NXN process were asked not to talk with the media about the meet.

But in the end, of course, the most important questions are these:  Who’s doing Foot Locker?  Who’s doing NXN?

Some are still deciding, but the verdicts are slowly rolling in.  A few weeks back, Foot Locker promoted the registration for their respective regional meets of Mission Prep CA sr Jordan Hasay and Independence TN sr Kathy Kroeger, the 2005 and 2006 Foot Locker champs and the #2 and #3 ranked athletes in the country.  It was revealed shortly thereafter that Wellington FL sr Ashley Brasovan would attempt to defend her 2007 title as well, giving Foot Locker all of the girls “Big Three.”  This wasn’t really a surprise – each said at season’s start that their intention was for Foot Locker and none of them are on remotely contending teams – but there were hopes of attracting at least two of these girls to NXN.

The rest of the top 11 from this week’s girls rankings finds just one athlete running NXN – #6 Sarah Andrews of SO#1 The Woodlands TX.  She does not anticipate trying to do the Foot Locker double.  Of that group, only #5 Melanie Thompson NJ is on a regionally-ranked team, but Voorhees is not quite the powerhouse it was last year and word is that Thompson hopes to race the other top girls in San Diego.

The next 14 (the rest of the top 25) are a different story; just six of that group look like Foot Locker-only participants.  Others are potential doublers or just doing NXN.  Heartland champ #13 Ashlie Decker is doing both meets, though her teammate Katie Flood – who did both last year and was feeling it by San Diego – is said to likely choose just one beyond Sioux Falls depending on whether their club (3rd) gets an at-large bid (unlikely).

NXN Midwest winner #14 Stephanie Morgan has said she’s just doing the Nike meets, while NXN Northwest champ #15 Alyssa Andrews reportedly is still undecided with her 3rd-place team's at-large status pending.  In Terre Haute, Morgan sounded like she wanted to help usher in the presence of top individuals in Portland, saying she and some of her peers “need to run this.”

#12 Courtney Chapman NY and #16 Amanda Winslow GA are part of two of the nation’s very best teams and are locked in with Nov. 29 NXN Regionals.  But behind what may seem like an obvious choice is a tough call, notes Winslow’s Collins Hill GA coach Andrew Hudson.

“It’s somewhat of an internal battle with Amanda,” he says.  “I'm sure if she thought about it, she would love to run Foot Locker with a chance to go to San Diego.  She's always been an individual as a runner (before her family moved to Collins Hill district) so it's her instinct.  It's only since she's been here that she's had more of a team perspective and to her credit, she's done very well with it. 

“The fact that Nike added the individuals has helped since now she will have a chance to test herself against more of the best individuals across the country,” he adds.  “I like her chances to do well.  I felt that last year, we were just happy to get to nationals and weren't really ready as a team to perform well.  Hopefully, this year will be different and we can go with a chance to do well.”

Meanwhile, this weekend will see three top individuals (without teams) in NXN events – Jessica Tonn AZ and Danielle Menlove UT in the Southwest meet, and Chelsey Sveinsson TX in the South meet.  Tonn and Sveinsson have both had the Foot Locker Finals experience and are very likely to qualify for Portland.  Tonn is undecided about doubling, but Sveinsson is going for both.

On the boys side, while the top three from the rankings (Joseph Manilafasha CO, Trevor Dunbar AK, and Solomon Haile MD) appear locked in for Foot Locker, there’s quite a mix with the remaining 22.  Those others who look like they’re Foot Locker-only include #8 Tyler Udland NJ, #9 Evan Appel CO, #11 Jeff Thode IL, #14 Brett Johnson NJ and #18 Brian Shrader AZ.

The best runners who appear to be NXN-only are #6 Reed Connor TX and #7 Andrew Colley VA.  Connor could do the double if he wanted, with his NXN South race a week before Foot Locker South, but apparently has chosen to focus on Portland with The Woodlands favored to win the region.  Texas rivals #15 Zach Ornelas and #17 Craig Lutz will race Connor again Saturday and likely make Portland, then look likely to try again in Charlotte next week, as fellow Texas Colby Lowe did twice.

Colley, with his Jamestown club in NXN Southeast next week, has to make the clear choice – no easy one, says his Jamestown high school coach, Howard Townsend IV.

“Without a doubt, the decision to go to Footlocker or NXN has been weighing on his mind,” he says.  “I ran at Foot Locker and know how great the experience is.  I would love for Andrew to experience San Diego and the great meet that the directors put on every year.

“At the same time, NXN offers an individual and a team option,” he continues.  “The guys on my team have been together for years.  The thought of competing together on a national stage is just too enticing.  Foot Locker has the history and tradition that makes cross-country special though.
“While, making a decision is hard, I am very happy that Nike and Foot Locker have created a national arena for cross-country.  I am not privy to how Nike and Footlocker run their businesses or the logistical problems that could erupt, but I would love to see a combination of both.”

Of course, Colley and Connor are both on #1-ranked teams.  Of the dozen or so boys in the top 25 that are not on ranked teams, none have committed to NXN-only, though the jury is still out on Californians like #4 Chris Schwartz, #10 Elias Gedyon, and #20 Zach Torres.  They are said to still be weighing their options, with Gedyon on a team with an outside shot to make it. 

In the Heartland, it looks like champion #5 Jakub Zivec MN will try both, but #13 Joash Osoro ND was leaning toward sticking with NXN.  Midwest winner Steve Sulkin is planning to try the double.  Others are still in the process of deciding.

With each of the four Foot Locker regions still looking pretty loaded, the NXN meets may also be a great opportunity for rising stars or those just beyond the spotlight to have a shot at a national championship meet.  The majority of the 30 individual qualifiers from last weekend were either 2nd or 3rd in their state meets, or champions of smaller classes or smaller states.

While many are either happy or neutral about the multiple opportunities, there are others who are not.  “I think the powers that be in Nike and Foot Locker have done a great disservice to our kids by putting them in this position of having to choose,” says Mason OH coach Tom Rapp.  His sophomore Zach Wills was the Ohio D1 champ and entered last weekend as a favorite in Terre Haute, but had also registered for Foot Locker Midwest. 

“We will decide about Foot Locker Midwest after the Nike meet,” he said before the meet.  “That does NOT mean if he or we make it to NXN that he won't run Foot Locker. It just means we will discuss it. We are sort of taking it one meet at a time.

Zach wants to be with his team, but if his team does not make it to nationals, Zach wants to race against the best,” he adds.  “However, I am reluctant to have him run in Wisconsin, Oregon, and California on three successive weekends. That is not beneficial to our kids athletically, nor academically.”

Of course, Wills came up short of making it to Portland, but will likely try his hand again in Kenosha.  One of the points his coach makes has been reiterated by The Woodlands’ aforementioned Sarah Andrews.  “I would love to be able to run in the Foot Locker meet, but that would mean competing in four meets in four weeks and missing a lot of school,” she said.

Last year, Chris Derrick, Colby Lowe and Katie Flood had well-publicized attempts to run all four races; all four were solid in San Diego, but clearly not at their very best.  Yet this year, there are likely to be at least a few more who will go for it.

Again, though, those were individuals that were part of very good teams.  At this point, those interested in running NXN exclusively has been limited to a very few of the top-level athletes – Stephanie Morgan being the best example – and rising or borderline stars who have seen an opportunity with the Nike meets they may not have with Foot Locker.

How the meets will evolve in the years to come is something that few unbiased observers could determine at this point, especially with an economy that could eventually threaten to limit sports and/or travel options for all.  There's no doubt both meets will work hard to provide kids with the best experience.  Could either meet make changes if they're not getting the athletes they want?  Certainly.  But as always, information will be hard to come beyond official announcements.  The reality of who gains ground in this battle will really be determined in the next 3-4 years as new athletes without experience at either meet are faced with the same choices and options today's athletes have.